The transgender community in Kerala is living in fear. According to transgender rights activists, 10 allegedly transphobic attacks, including a murder, have been reported in the state in the seven months since July. This despite Kerala becoming the first Indian state in 2015 to launch a State Policy of Transgenders that envisions a just society for the community with equal rights, and Transgender Justice Boards at the state and district levels.
People whose gender identities do not conform to the sex they were born with are referred to as transgender, and the discrimination they face is termed transphobia.
In the latest incident in Kerala on Sunday, a group of men attacked three trans women in Malappuram district. A trans woman is one who is assigned male at birth but identifies as female. The assailants reportedly locked them up in a room without ventilation for 30 minutes and threatened to kill them. When the victims went to the police station to register a complaint, the men marched to the station as well shouting slogans against them. The police said they were investigating the incident.
However, it was the police who were accused of assaulting two transgender artistes, Susmi and Jasmin, when they were walking down a street in Kozhikode city in the early hours of December 28. The two were reportedly returning to their rooms after a practice session for an arts festival when the police stopped them on suspicion of prostitution. Cases were registered against three policemen under sections 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) and 347 (wrongful confinement to extort property, or constrain to illegal act) of the Indian Penal Code after the incident came to light.
In another big scare for the community in Kerala, 35-year-old transgender person Gowri was murdered in Ernakulam district in August. The police have arrested a suspect, Thrissur resident Abhilash Kumar, in this case.
These incidents have led many to dismiss the Kerala government’s claims of the state being transgender-friendly.
‘They were framed’
The transgender community in the state also accuses the police of targeting them and framing them under false charges. They point to the arrest of four trans women from a lodge in Kochi on January 4 as part of a prostitution ring.
Jomol, a trans woman from Kottayam district, accused the police officer who led the raid of framing the four. “Circle Inspector Ananthlal has been threatening to drive us out of Kochi city for some time,” Jomol said. “He had beaten up many of us before.”
Rushing to the Ernakulam Central Police Station to secure bail for the arrested four, a furious Jomol added, “The government’s claim that Kerala is a transgender-friendly state is hollow. We are living like refugees in our home state.”
Transgender rights activist Plinku Sangeeth was quoted by The Hindu as saying that the police do not want any transgender people in the city and have been targeting them for a long time. She claimed a transgender person who lived in the lodge and had just returned from work was threatened with arrest by the policemen. “They told Theertha, a Kochi Metro employee, that she was being spared for the time being,” she said.
Referring to the arrests on January 4, trans activist Vihaan Peethambar said, “A majority in Kerala Police hate transgender people and it results in conflicts and cases.”
Human rights activist and lawyer Maya Krishnan added, “Police try to drive them away from cities and falsely implicate them in fake cases. It is a grave human rights issue. Remember, they too deserve this piece of land.”
However, Circle Inspector Ananthlal said the police had merely acted on complaints. He added, “Transgender people have become a public nuisance and their presence threatens to create a law and order issue. We will continue to act tough if they disrupt normal life.”
Sensitising the public, police
Transgender rights activists believe these crimes boil down to a fear of trans people, which remains despite the government’s transgender policy.
The 2015 policy states that it supports the attainment of a just society where men, women and transgender people have equal rights to development opportunities, resources and benefits; the right to live with dignity and enjoy a life free from all forms of violence; the right to freedom of expression in all matters that affect them, and the right to an equal voice and participation in key development decisions that shape their lives, their communities and the state.
Furthermore, it envisaged the setting up of a State Transgender Justice Board and district Transgender Justice Board under the Department of Social Justice.
In its wake, sports meets and beauty pageants were organised for the community. In May last year, the Kochi Metro Railway Limited, a government-supported venture, hired 23 transgender people.
Peethambar, who is a member of the Ernakulam district Transgender Justice Board, believes such government programmes to guide gender minorities into the mainstream will not make much of a difference unless the public and the police are first sensitised.
Promising to address this issue, Department of Social Justice director PB Nooh said, “The department has understood the need to sensitise police department.”
Peethambar said the police should first of all understand why gender minorities live in lodges and hotels. “Finding accommodation is difficult for them,” he explained. “Landlords won’t rent out homes. Reputed hotels will not give them rooms. Hence, they are forced to find refuge in shady hotels.”
Jasmine has been living in a rooftop room in a lodge after she got a job with the Kochi Metro Railway Limited. “It is the only place I got to live after a lot of house hunting,” Jasmine said. “At one point, I thought of not accepting the job for want of accommodation.”
According to a Hindustan Times report, eight of the 23 transgender people employed by the Kochi Metro quit their jobs within a week of joining after they failed to find cheap and safe accommodation in the city.
Nooh acknowledged that the social justice department was aware of the difficulties the community faced while looking for a place to stay. “It is unfortunate that transpeople still cannot find accommodation of their choice,” he said. “The government is addressing the issue seriously.”
He said the government plans to provide exclusive accommodation to trans people in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. “We are committed to provide safe accommodation for them,” he added.